Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A California Syrah Defies Convention, Expands Consciousness

At a blind tasting last week I came across a wine that both puzzled and delighted me. It smelled of blackberries, roses, violets and rich earth. On the palate, the wine was fresh and light, the acid was tangy, and the tannins were fine. The flavors of olive, black tea, white pepper and crushed rocks were complex and intriguing. And the earthy and mineral-driven finish lasted forever. As I’m prone to do at blind tastings, I tried to guess the grape and region. The olive and earth aspects reminded me of a Northern Rhone syrah, perhaps a single-vineyard Crozes-Hermitage? But the black tea and mineral also made me think of a pinot from the Jura region of France. (Two other experienced tasters guessed nebbiolo from Piedmont.)

What the hell was this stuff? I was confused, but I rated it a conservative 92 points.

When the wine was unveiled, I was shocked. It was a 2010 Edmunds St. John Syrah “Wylie-Fenaughty” from El Dorado County, located in California’s Sierra Foothills appellation. The alcohol clocked in at a meager 13%. After tasting this wine, my journalistic mind kicked into gear I just had to find out what made this California syrah so damn unique.

Keeping in mind the truism “wine is made in the vineyard,” let’s start there. The syrah juice in this bottle comes from two separate vineyards (hence the hyphenated name on the label). Both the Wylie Vineyard and the Fenaughty Vineyard are located at 2,800 feet on separate sides of the American River. The Wylie Vineyard soil is shallow and composed of fractured quartzite and shale. This hilly spot gets so steep that some rows of vines had to be terraced. Co-founder and winemaker Steve Edmunds describes the Fenaughty Vineyard this way: “The soil at Fenaughty is volcanic, in origin, a series known as Aiken Loam; it’s very red in color, sandy in texture, with a good deal of rock mixed in.”

A cooperative effort between Steve and his wife Cornelia St. John, Edmunds St. John has been making wine since 1985. Based in Berkeley, the couple also sources grapes from Napa, Mendocino and San Luis Obispo Counties. (The story of the winery is fascinating, and detailed here.) Steve Edmunds made his first syrah that same year, sourcing the grapes from Paso Robles. The resulting wine came in with a bantamweight alcohol content of 10.5%! Edmunds says he was hoping for something like 12.5%, but, either way, I think this says a lot about the winemaker’s approach to syrah. And the 2010 Syrah Wylie-Fenaughty says a lot about the shortfalls of the Old World-New World dichotomy. It fights back against the general conception of California syrah as a hot blackberry boot to the teeth.
Steep slopes of syrah - Wylie Vineyard
Edmunds seems like a true terroirist. In a 2010 blog post, he explains how “California syrah” is not the most helpful mental construct, considering the tremendous diversity of elements that come together in each bottle of wine. “The fact that Syrah in California has been thought of, for most of the past twenty-odd years, as being very dark, full-bodied, powerful wine makes a certain kind of sense, at least in the abstract. California is generally a warm place, with a long, mostly dry growing season, one that starts early and hangs around almost until the Winter holidays in many years. But this abstract sense strikes me as neither informative nor useful, since California’s geography boasts stunning variability in elevation, proximity to the ocean, marine airflow patterns, mountain airflow patterns, soil moisture-retaining capacity, soil vigor, wind and sun exposures, topography, and so on, that profoundly influence the nature of wine produced on any given site.”

If you’re interested in expanding your own concept of what syrah is capable of achieving in California, drink this stuff. And, check this out: K&L Wines is selling this syrah for a modest $30 sum. Well worth it, especially when you consider that consumers probably won’t see “Wylie” on any more Edmunds St. John labels. (In an email, Steve wrote: “Wylie, unfortunately, is no longer a source for us. Long, sad tale of woe.”) Yes, it is sad, but I plan on scoping out more wines from this producer very soon.